- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2001

The D.C. fire departments new $8 million communications system crashed for three hours early Tuesday, forcing crews to rely on phones and old-fashioned dot-matrix printers for information, firefighters told The Washington Times.
The 800-megahertz Motorola digital radio, installed in January, cant broadcast to many locations within buildings, apartment courtyards or basements, and its problematic interface with personallocator devices, a key safety feature, has infuriated firefighters, who fear another incident like the 1997 fire on Kennedy Street NW, in which a sergeant lost his life.
Firefighters are also upset that dispatchers have made some critical errors, sending fire crews and medics to wrong addresses. Three of those cases ended in the deaths of the individuals needing attention.
The dispatchers say they are undermanned and underpaid because Chief Ronnie Few hasnt raised salaries as publicly promised.
Chief Few, flanked by 13 members of his department and other city officials, fired back yesterday, saying at a news conference that recent reports about ambulance foul-ups contained "misinformation."
"Youre looking at 30 years of neglect going on in the department," Chief Few said. "I cannot clear up in 10 months what happened in 30 years."
The chief said neither the radio network nor the dispatching system has a systemic problem.
But The Times learned yesterday that a man from the unit block of V Street NE died last month after paramedics from Rapid Response Unit 12 talked him out of going to the hospital. Neighbors called back four hours later, and a different crew took him to Washington Hospital Centers emergency room, where he was pronounced dead.
"They just said they wasnt going to take him," said Leroy Brown, who lives downstairs from the man. "He wanted to go. He never would have asked me to call if he didnt want to go."
When paramedics arrived the first time, around 3:30 a.m. on April 26, they said, "Oh, him again," Mr. Brown told The Times. "They looked like they were impatient, but the man was sick."
"He was examined, but they didnt take him," said Mr. Browns wife, Barbara Brown. "They said his heart was OK. Thats terrible. It dont make no sense. When you call for an ambulance, theyre supposed to take you."
The Browns identified the man as Odell Sellers, and sources said he was in his 40s. The mans relatives could not be reached for comment last night, and a hospital official said he could not comment about the incident.
That mans death is at least the third fatality since August involving a dispatch or medic-crew mistake.
Department spokesman Alan Etter said he was not aware of the V Street incident and could not comment.
Dispatch errors and medical misjudgments arent the only problems.
The communications network shut down on Tuesday at about 3:30 a.m. for three hours, and Motorola dispatched a team to examine the system on Tuesday and yesterday.
Fire department sources told The Times that the crash of the communication system on Tuesday was a total shutdown. "For a time period, we had total and complete loss of the communication system other than the phones," the source said.
But Chief Few and a Motorola spokesman disputed that, saying six or seven of the 16 channels remained operational, and field radios could communicate with each other while central dispatch was down for only 40 minutes. "We had no problems that night," Chief Few said.
Firefighters have submitted reports identifying more than 26 locations where the system has trouble broadcasting, according to department documents.
The emergency identifiers on portable radios also have malfunctioned and many have not been reprogrammed, according to documents and sources. Thats a particular concern to firefighters because Sgt. John Carter died in the 1997 blaze on Kennedy Street in part because his radio requests for help failed, according to a report about the incident.
"We realize that with any new system, regardless of the brand, there will be start-up problems," James E. Carter, chairman of the firefighters union safety committee, wrote in an April letter to Chief Few. "But we are not convinced the problems brought to your attention are 'start-up problems."
Mr. Carter is the brother of the sergeant, John Carter, who died in the 1997 fire. "Let us learn from the Kennedy Street fire and not permit history to be repeated," he wrote in the letter.


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